After a year of reflection, beta readers, and writing workshops, I am reworking the entire manuscript. I plan on releasing a chapter a week, so keep reading :-)
The soles of Deanna’s feet burned. Her toes pulsed, her ankles throbbed, and she considered kicking the borrowed heels across the room to give her feet a well-deserved break. An image of her mother’s disapproving scowl flashed through her mind, and a smile touched Deanna’s lips before she managed to stifle it. What would people think if they saw her standing in a corner smiling to herself? Her mother would be furious, and Charlotte would no doubt chastise her for the brazen lack of etiquette. Appearances were an important part of life as a Carpenter, and while used to falling short of her family’s expectations, Deanna didn’t want to be the cause of any drama. Especially now.
She shifted her weight and cursed the persistent ache in her calves. She would need to stretch before the ache turned into full-blown cramps, but she wasn’t close enough to the door to slip away unnoticed. Frowning, she inched sideways along the wall until she came to one of her mother’s hideous armchairs and stepped behind it, effectively shielding herself from the waist down. She slid one foot out of her pointed-toe shoes and flexed her toes against the floor, biting her lower lip to muffle her sigh of relief.
“The simple pleasures in life, right?”
The deep voice surprised her, and she wobbled dangerously before shoving her foot back into its torture device. She tried not to cry out as her blisters rubbed against the leather, but an unmistakable hiss of annoyance escaped through her teeth as she turned around to face Grady, her mother’s neighbor and her childhood best friend.
“You said it.” She kept her voice low to match the mood filling the room. “I haven’t worn shoes like this in years, and today reminds me why I stopped.” She surveyed the crowd before turning to face the man next to her. “There’s quite a turnout today, isn’t there?”
Grady Beaumont looked down at her with a smile so achingly familiar, her heart lurched. Years had passed since she last saw him, too many years and every one of them her fault, and she almost blurted out an apology before reminding herself the distance she put between herself and everything Asherville had been worth any regrets, including her frayed friendship with Grady.
“Did you expect anything less?” He gestured to the people milling around the room, and his smile dimmed. “Your father was a well-known, well-loved Judge. Anyone who is anyone in this town is here today.”
Deanna nodded. “I know. He’s going to be missed by so many.” Grady reached out to squeeze her elbow, and she swallowed against the tightening of her throat. “I can’t believe he’s really gone. He was always larger than life, you know?”
They fell silent, each of them lost in their own memories of Judge Carpenter. Deanna’s were comforting, full of the sounds and smells of her first visit to her father’s courtroom. The sight of his desk looming above them had thrilled her, and when he handed her his gavel, she couldn’t get enough of the sound of finality as it ricocheted off the walls. He laughed while she experimented with different ways of holding it, and when she finally handed it back, he tousled her hair and said, “You tell ‘em, Dee. No matter what, make sure everyone knows you’re in charge even if you have no idea what it is you’re doing.” In that moment she felt stronger, braver, and more self-assured than ever before, and from that day on, the words her father said were the ones she repeated to herself when she needed an extra dose of confidence.
She took a step back, wincing as her toes rubbed together. “I suppose I ought to check on my mom. She seems to have disappeared.” She rubbed her arms, not sure if it was the chill that always seemed to be present in the big house or the thought of facing her mother making her shiver. “I need to talk to Charlotte, too. Have you seen her?”
Grady shook his head. “The last time I saw her, she was getting ice from the kitchen. Want me to help you look?” Strands of dark hair fell across his forehead, and she resisted the urge to brush it back with a reminder to get a haircut.
“No, thanks. I’m sure my ever-capable sister is somewhere hovering around the food, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find Mom holding court with someone important. They’ll be easy enough to find.” She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. “You can wish me luck though.”
Grady’s eyes were full of sympathy. “It was hard to come home, wasn’t it?”
It was a statement rather than a question, and it surprised her. She was always careful when the subject of Asherville came up, but she was either lousy at hiding her feelings or the ability to read her mind was still one of Grady’s more annoying traits. Either way she wouldn’t be able to lie her way out of it, so she didn’t even try. “It was, but I had to. My family needed me to come back.”
Grady nodded. “Of course they did. No matter how bad things may have gotten between you, they still love you.”
The back of her eyelids prickled, and she pinched the bridge of her nose. “Have you seen Lewis?” she blurted, desperate to change the subject. “He’s been by my side since we arrived, but now I’ve lost him, too.”
Grady shrugged. “No, I haven’t seen him, but I would like to say goodbye before he takes off again.”
“Wonderful,” Deanna muttered. “That means he’s either outside on a business call, or he’s met someone of appropriate social status and is talking their ear off.”
Grady snorted. “Wow, when you say it like that, your boyfriend sounds like a great guy.”
His sarcasm was thick, and she hurried to clarify her comment. “Oh, he is. I’m just feeling sorry for myself. He’s leaving tonight to finalize some big business deal, so I’ll be here alone to stand my ground against Grace.”
Grady’s frown deepened. “You won’t be alone,” he reminded her. “Charlotte is here, and I’m just next door if you need me.”
Deanna sighed and gave him a weak smile. “I know, and I’m thankful for that, trust me.” She looked away from the sympathy in Grady’s dark eyes and scanned the room again. Catching sight of her sister’s tall, lithe frame crossing the room, she cleared her throat and lifted her chin. “I’m glad you’re here, because Charlotte will be going back to the city soon, and then it’ll just be me and mom in the house.”
“She’s leaving? She didn’t say anything to me about it.”
Deanna searched Grady’s face for any sign of remorse, but there was nothing except mild curiosity in his expression as he watched his ex-girlfriend circle the room. “I’m not sure,” she admitted, “but I would guess in a day or so. Remember my sister, the all-important Assistant District Attorney, has very serious work that needs to be done. That being the case, I’m the one elected to stay here and organize life for Mom.”
Grady looked back at her and raised an eyebrow. “Elected?”
“You know how it goes around here, Grady. Mom and Charlotte make a decision, they clue me in, and then I am to behave accordingly.” She glanced at him and smirked. “Then again, you were probably too busy making out with my sister to pay proper attention.”
Grady crossed his arms, his smile wide. “I refuse to answer that,” he tossed back. “Anyway, that can’t be the truth. You were always hanging around, so when would we have had the chance to do anything more than hold hands?”
Deanna rolled her eyes, the ache of exclusion easy to recall. “Please. You two had plenty of time alone while I was stuck here with the Judge and her Royal Highness. It isn’t like you didn’t have a car and couldn’t get away, you know. Plus, God only knows what you two managed to do once you got to college.”
Grady’s smile froze. “I told you before, we were too busy to see much of each other. Seems obvious since we broke up almost as soon as we got there, doesn’t it?”
Her teasing had struck a nerve. “I know, I’m sorry. I was just kidding, Grady, really. Lighten up.” She focused on her sister again to avoid his scowl. “Are you still upset over the breakup?”
“Hardly. It’s was a long time ago, and we were more like friends at that point anyway. Nothing really changed.” His voice was steady, and Deanna was relieved.
“Good,” she breathed. “I’d hate to think you were still pining after my sister, especially since there wouldn’t be any hope for you two. She will never leave Boston. and you’ll never leave Asherville.”
Grady shoved his hands in his pockets. “That’s the truth. I may not have been thrilled about dropping out of school and coming home to run the family business, but I have to admit, I can’t imagine being anywhere else.” He paused, and his jaw tightened. “Of course, I could have done without the circumstances bringing me back…”
His voice trailed off, and Deanna chewed on her lower lip. Grady’s parents had urged him to stay in law school despite his father’s cancer diagnosis, but once Gerald Beaumont admitted he could no longer run the business alone, Grady dropped out and returned to Asherville. A small, selfish part of her had been thrilled at the thought of him being next door again, and after a few months of readjusting to life in the small town, Grady adjusted to Deanna’s constant presence, too.
“I know it was devastating to lose your father and mother so close together,” she whispered.
She could have sworn Grady’s eyes were damp, but he ducked his head before she could be sure. “It was.”
A blanket of sadness threatened to settle over them, and Deanna rubbed her arms again to stop it from grabbing hold. “I guess I should go figure out what my future looks like.” She straightened her black skirt and tucked her loose curls behind her ears. “Plus, if I don’t make myself seen, my mom will reprimand me for being socially irresponsible.”
Grady took his hands out of his pockets and thumped her twice on the back, officially breaking the somber mood. “Good luck, old friend. Don’t forget, I’ll be here if you need reinforcements against Charlotte.” He grimaced, then exhaled through his teeth. “Um, just don’t expect me to tackle your mother. I’ve known Grace all my life, and she can still terrify me with one look.”
Deanna groaned. “No kidding. I have the same problem.”
Rolling the stress from her shoulders, Deanna began weaving her way across the room. She had to stop numerous times to accept condolences and thank people for attending the service, but she managed to catch up with Charlotte before she escaped into the kitchen again.
“Hey, Sis,” Deanna greeted her. “How are you holding up?”
Charlotte reached up to pat the tightly wound bun at the nape of her neck. “I’m fine,” she replied, but her fingers shook as she pressed them against the hollow of her neck. “I hope people start leaving soon. Mom’s exhausted, and I’m not too far behind myself.”
Deanna wrapped an arm around her sister’s shoulders. “What can I do to help?” she asked, squeezing Charlotte against her side. “I’ll do anything except dance.”
Charlotte frowned. “That isn’t necessary. It isn’t that type of party.” She yawned, covering her mouth with a slender hand. “I think we’re all set, really. I mean, I don’t even have to do anything since mom hired all these people, but I like feeling useful.”
“No!” Deanna dropped her arm and looked at her sister in mock surprise. “You? Charlotte Carpenter, ADA for Norfolk County, top graduate and top trial attorney in the District Attorney’s Office? Not you!”
Charlotte swatted her arm. “Not the top trial attorney,” she corrected. “Just one of them.”
Deanna laughed, appreciating Charlotte’s rare attempt at humor. “Sorry, my mistake.”
The sisters were still giggling when someone cleared their throat behind them. “What’s so funny?” a familiar voice asked. “It looks like I missed something good.”
Deanna turned around with a wide smile for her boyfriend. “Lewis, there you are!” She reached out to hug the tall, blond man beside her. “I’ve been looking for you. Where did you run off to?”
Lewis Price leaned down to kiss her nose. “I saw you talking to Grady, so I went outside to take a call.”
She sighed and snuggled against him, the warmth of his body helping to soothe her frayed nerves. “Everything okay back home?”
He stepped back and laced his fingers with hers. “It will be. I need to get back soon and work out the last few details of this contract. It’s a good thing I have a flight booked tonight.”
His thumb stroked the top of her hand, and she shivered as goosebumps rose on her arms.
She didn’t want Lewis to go, not when she was still so upset about her dad and not entirely sure what her family expected from her. She had agreed to his early departure when they booked their flights, but she couldn’t have imagined how much she would end up depending on his presence one they arrived in Asherville.
“Don’t look so sad,” he murmured, running his knuckles along her jawline and making her stomach quiver. “Charlotte’s here, and so is Grady. You’ll be okay, and before you know it, you’ll be home again.”
Deanna struggled to push the doubt from her mind and nodded. “I know.”
She stayed underneath the weight of his arm, snug against his chest and reminding herself he wasn’t abandoning her, until most of the guests were gone. By then she was almost numb from the heaviness of her exhaustion, and even Charlotte looked a bit wilted as she spoke with the last of the lingering mourners.
Not their mother, though. There wasn’t a hair out of place or the slightest wrinkle in her dress; in fact, nothing about her gave any indication she had just buried her husband of 45 years. She was as imposing as ever, and Deanna wished she had tried harder to convince Charlotte to leave her with the caterer’s payment rather than checking on their mother.
She plastered a smile on her face and crossed the room. “Hey, Mom, how are you holding up?” She knelt down next to her mother’s chair and lay a hand on her knee. “Are you cold? I could get you a blanket if you like.”
Grace brushed her hand away with a frown. “No, thank you, Deanna. I would look quite the sight sitting here with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders while entertaining our guests, don’t you think? I’m fine as I am.”
She forced herself not to grit her teeth. “We aren’t exactly entertaining guests, mom. I’m sure they would understand if you needed a blanket. In fact, I’m sure they would be fine if you went off to rest. It’s been a long day, and no one expects you to be a superhero.”
Grace blinked once and fixed her ice-blue eyes on Deanna. “That is ridiculous,” she scoffed. “I may have lost my husband, but I have not lost my manners. I’ll see everyone out and thank them for coming, just as a good hostess should.”
“Okay, okay.” Deanna stood and squeezed her mother’s bony shoulder. “Whatever you want. I was just trying to help.”
“Thank you,” Grace replied, her words tight. “Thank you, but I’m fine.”
Deanna sighed and turned away. Whatever. She caught sight of Charlotte stacking used glasses on a tray, so she strode across the room to complain about their mother’s stubborn refusal to be human.
“Mom’s in it for the long haul, Charlotte. She won’t go to bed until the last person leaves.”
“Of course she won’t. Honestly, it’s like you’ve forgotten how she is.” Charlotte glanced in her mother’s direction and then straightened to face Deanna, suspicion etching her features. “What did you say to her? She looks miserable!”
Deanna blinked. “What did I say? Nothing to upset her, I swear! I asked if she wanted a blanket, and she acted as if I was suggesting she put on a snowsuit or something.” Her eyes narrowed and she looked back at Grace who, in her opinion, wore the same expression she had been wearing all day. “Do you think that maybe, just maybe, she looks miserable because she is miserable? Come on, Charlotte. Even mom can’t keep up a perfect façade today. I mean, we did just bury our father and the man she loved, for heaven’s sake.”
Charlotte’s left eye twitched. “I know that,” she hissed. “Don’t you think I know that? I was the one who got the call when mom found him, I’m the one who rushed here to be with her, and I’m the one who has done most of the planning and helping since this happened. Don’t you think I know our father is dead? I’ve been stuck in this house for days, and it’s been hell!”
Deanna shrank back and held up her hands. “Okay, okay. I didn’t mean it that way, Charlotte. I’m sorry.” Her skin prickled with shame under Charlotte’s glare, and her cheeks blazed. “I’m sorry,” she repeated, staring at the oriental carpet beneath her feet as her vision blurred.
A warm hand touched her back. Lifting her head, she saw Grady standing next to her, frowning and looking back-and-forth between her and Charlotte. “Everything all right over here?”
Neither of them answered, so he stepped between them. “Charlotte? Deanna?” He reached out and grasped Charlotte’s hand, then Deanna’s. “What’s wrong?”
“Everything’s fine,” Charlotte muttered, pulling her hand free and dropping her arm to her side. “No problem.”
“No problem,” Deanna echoed. Charlotte refused to meet her gaze, and Deanna’s stomach churned, the feeling of acid rising in her throat as familiar as her sister’s anger.
Grady focused on Charlotte, but she wouldn’t look at him, either. “Are you sure you’re both okay? It didn’t sound like it.”
Deanna chewed her bottom lip, hating her sister’s silence. “Yeah, it’s fine. We’re all just a bit tired and ready to close up shop, I think.”
He accepted her explanation or at least pretended to. “Okay then, would you like me to start clearing people out? I don’t mind.”
“It’s up to Charlotte,” she replied, releasing his hand. “Whatever she wants.”
Charlotte raised her chin and glanced around the room, still avoiding their gazes. “I suppose, but check with mom first, okay, Grady? I don’t want to upset her any more than she has been.”
Deanna bristled but kept her mouth shut. While she wanted to respond to the implication, she didn’t feel like continuing the argument. She was too tired, and history proved it was easier to let her sister take control than fight about it.
Lewis appeared next to Deanna’s elbow, his expression somber. “Deanna, I hate to say it, but I need to go. The airport limousine is here, and if I don’t leave soon I’ll miss my plane.”
Her heart dropped. “Okay. I’ll walk you out.” She excused herself, not that Charlotte was listening, and trailed behind Lewis while he said goodbye to the remaining guests and leaned down to hug Grace, then fell into step beside him as they made their way onto the front porch.
They faced each other, and Deanna shivered as the February wind curled around them. “I wouldn’t be upset if you missed your plane,” she said, wrapping her arms around his waist and leaning her head against his chest.
“You would be after I lost my job and became unbearable to live with.” He kissed her forehead and peered down at her, his eyes sad. “You’ll be home in less than a week, Deanna, and you’ll slip right back into being busy again. We already have two business events to attend, and I have a feeling we’ll have a celebration to enjoy once this contract goes through.” He released her and smiled. “Now, go inside before you catch a cold.”
“Okay,” she relented. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” He waved and made his way down the front walk, his stride hesitant as he maneuvered around patches of ice the salt had missed. With one last look over his shoulder, he climbed into the long, dark sedan, and she watched until the taillights disappeared around the bend in the driveway. Her heart ached, and as silence settled around her again, she wished she was in the car with Lewis instead of standing on the front porch of a house she no longer considered home.
Grady lingered until the last guest said their goodbye, but it still pained Deanna to see him go. She watched him cross the grass with long, confident strides and smiled when he turned to wave before ducking between the trees. When the branches stilled behind him she released her grip on the porch railing and exhaled, her breath forming a faint cloud of vapor which disappeared, taking the last of her resolve with it.
It was time to face the inevitable.
Heavy silence greeted her the moment she stepped into the house, and her shoulders tensed. Relax. You aren’t a kid anymore. You can say no.
“Did your sister talk to you about what we’ve decided?”
Deanna swallowed her scream and followed the sound of her mother’s voice down the hall. Judging by the familiar tone she wasn’t going to like their decision, but she plastered a smile on her face so Grace would have no reason to wave away her objections and claim she was ‘angry before even listening’.
“No.” She sat on the couch across from her mother. “We haven’t seen much of each other today, so why don’t you fill me in?”
Grace sniffed and folded her hands in her lap. “Well, seeing as your sister is needed back at the District Attorney’s Office, we think it would be best if you remained here to assist me with the will and getting your father’s affairs straightened out. We’ll need to finalize the distribution of assets, and then we’ll sort through his personal belongings. You and your sister will want some of his things, I’m sure, so Charlotte can either put aside what she wants before she goes, or we can delay that part for a few weeks until she’s free, and then the two of you can do it together.”
“A few weeks?” Deanna’s mouth dropped open. “Mom, I want to help, but just how long do you and Charlotte plan on having me here?” She tried to keep the panic out of her voice, but if there was any hope of keeping her sanity, she needed to get back home, back to Lewis, and back to her normal life.
Grace’s expression hardened. “I would think at least a month, though we didn’t have a specific date in mind. Do you need to rush back to the city? I thought with your job, you could work from anywhere?”
Deanna grit her teeth and cursed the portability of her writing career. “That’s true to some extent,” she admitted, “but Lewis is in the city, and I do need to get back at some point. We have a lot of business events coming up.”
Charlotte appeared in the doorway, her frown exaggerating the sharpness of her features. “Deanna, we aren’t asking for much. Just be here and help mom. I don’t think that’s too difficult, do you?”
But you didn’t ask. Out loud, she said, “No, of course not, but I do have things I need to take care of. And I didn’t pack for more than a week…” She left the implication of being unprepared to stay hanging in the air, but neither of them seemed to care that she would have to wear everything she had six times over if she stayed. Two pairs of blue eyes bore into her, Charlotte’s full of annoyance and Grace’s burning with expectations, and Deanna’s shoulders dropped under their combined weight. “I suppose I could order some things online, and I may have a few things left in the closet,” she conceded.
Grace's chin lifted. "I’ll be happy to pay for whatever you need, Deanna.”
Charlotte waved her hand through the air in dismissal. “I’m sure that’s not necessary, Mom,” she said. “Deanna can make do with what she has or pick up a few things in town.”
Deanna’s eyes narrowed, but she refused to give her sister the satisfaction of contradicting the statement. “It’s fine, mom,” she agreed. “I needed some new things anyway.”
“Great. It’s decided then.”
Charlotte’s words snaked across Deanna’s skin and left goosebumps in their wake. “Yes,” she sighed. “I guess I’ll be staying for a while.”
Grace’s gaze followed her older daughter as she left the room, and then she focused on Deanna again. “Thank you for agreeing to stay.” She settled back in her chair and smiled. “Your sister is so busy; I couldn’t ask her to take any more time off. She’s a hard worker, so driven to succeed, but I know she’d have done it if I asked. I don’t want her to risk her career out of obligation to me, though I do admire her sense of family. You understand the conflict, don’t you?”
Deanna’s own smile slipped, and she struggled to get it back again. “I do, Mom,” she said. “Of course I do.”
What she understood was Charlotte was her mother’s first choice. Charlotte was the daughter her mother was proudest of, the child she got along with, and the person who could do no wrong. Charlotte was the shining star in her mother’s eyes and Deanna was an afterthought, someone who carried the Carpenter name but none of the qualities worthy of claiming it. The sister’s roles had been cast long ago, and now that their father was gone, Deanna admitted it might be time to accept she would never find a way out of her sister’s shadow no matter how hard she tried.